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A C-5 Galaxy from Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., approaches Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, Oct. 11, 2014 (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Heather Redman via Wikimedia Commons)

“Team Democracy”: SOUTHCOM’s Diplomatic Dilemma in Latin America

Graphics including US flags drag up old memories of a time when democracy was more about anticommunism than actual support for democracy.

Words: Adam Ratzlaff, Emma Woods, Jeffery A. Tobin
Pictures: Heather Redman

Open Scene: the narrator bellows “China’s presence is growing across Latin America and the Caribbean and democratic norms and values are eroding. But no need to fear, TEAM DEMOCRACY is here.” Giant arrows emblazoned with the American flag come down from the United States across Latin America. Meanwhile, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian flags wave weakly on a shrunken Asian continent. 

If you think this is the beginning of a trailer for the sequel to the parody Team America: World Police, you’d be wrong. Instead, the term “Team Democracy,” along with a slightly toned-down image of the one in the hypothetical trailer, was included in a presentation hosted by Florida International University and the Council on Foreign Relations by the current SOUTHCOM Commander, General Laura Richardson. These are themes that she regularly uses in public engagements. While the difficulties facing the Americas are real, this imagery could limit the ability of the United States to address the challenges in the region or even to prevent the spread of Chinese influence in the Americas.

SOUTHCOM has been an important partner in the region in addressing a number of threats and challenges: prioritizing climate change,  helping nations in times of natural disasters, countering narcotics, and promoting gender inclusion, among others. Yet, how the United States seeks to address these challenges can be difficult. While US concerns over Chinese engagement in the region are clear, framing regional affairs as part of a new “Cold War” is counterproductive and highlights US inconsistencies in its approach to the region. Many countries in the region hear China’s calls for a win-win relationship, but calls for a “Team Democracy” may ring hollow or even be perceived as US imperialism. 

While the United States may have the best intentions, its complicated history with the region and past examples of hypocrisy as it relates to democracy promotion may limit its ability to engage with partners. SOUTHCOM shaping its strategy as promoting “Team Democracy” and the image used to discuss it — as well as SOUTHCOM’s “Team USA” framing — fall head first into this dilemma.

History of Intervention

The United States has a long history of intervention and neo-imperialism in the region. While there are a variety of ways to assess the Monroe Doctrine, it is regularly viewed as evidence of US intent to claim the region as its sphere of influence. Graphics from the US military of American flags being deployed across the region do little to quell concerns of US intervention in the region. Particularly coming on the heels of an administration that repeatedly referenced the Monroe Doctrine as central to US engagement. If SOUTHCOM wants to engage, it must push back against the narrative that the US is an imperial power — one that China and other actors are more than willing to push in pursuit of their own interests in the Americas.

In addition to concerns over a history of US imperialism is the fact that the United States has used the defense of democracy as an excuse for intervention or supporting undemocratic actors in the past — particularly during the Cold War — when democracy was code for anticommunism rather than actual democracy. The graphic of US flags unfurling across the region further harkens back to this specific view of democracy rather than actual support. While the threat of democratic backsliding in Latin America and the Caribbean is very real, SOUTHCOM must recognize this legacy and be careful how it frames its support for democracy.

Exacerbating how SOUTHCOM is using the term democracy in this framing is who is considered part of “Team Democracy.” With the exception of some notably authoritarian countries in the region — Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela — every other country in the Americas is considered to be a member. However, several countries in the region, including the United States, are facing their own issues with democratic governance. In fact, according to V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2023, only three countries in the region are democratizing while nine are becoming less democratic. 

Despite these realities, countries facing very real challenges to human rights and democracy are listed as members of the team. While SOUTHCOM excels at promoting democracy and civilian-military relations in many countries, the double standard of including countries with less than democratic status and using democracy as a code for countries working with the United States or against China limits Washington’s ability to meaningfully engage on issues of democratic erosion or to acknowledge domestic threats to democracy.


There are several issues with how General Richardson has framed SOUTHCOM’s activity in the region. But there are some positive areas that she has continued to expand. Most notably, she has been particularly careful in framing its activities not through US-pushed initiatives, but through the development of partnerships. This is an area that SOUTHCOM has promoted for some time. 

Over the past 20 years, there has been a marked effort in framing SOUTHCOM activities in the Americas as part of a broader partnership. In fact, with the exception of a decline in the use of the term partner (or derivatives of the term, such as partnership) during former President Donald Trump’s administration (from 2017-2021), the phrase has been increasingly used by SOUTHCOM Commanders to describe the posture of their command — growing from not being used in 2004 to being used over 100 times in the 2023 posture statement. This shift in SOUTHCOM’s approach to the region is important and can create opportunities to collaborate with neighboring countries on their most pressing challenges.

SOUTHCOM has adeptly positioned itself as a collaborative partner in Latin America and the Caribbean, fostering a narrative of mutual benefit and cooperation. This strategic approach has largely been successful in building alliances and promoting shared goals. 

Allies and Adversaries

Still, if the United States wants to meaningfully engage with militaries across the region, it needs to be careful in its approach or risk alienating potential partners. The promotion of democracy, a cornerstone of US foreign policy, must proceed with sensitivity and respect for the sovereignty of these nations. Overzealous endeavors risk alienating vital allies in a region where geopolitical influences are increasingly complex. As SOUTHCOM continues to navigate these diplomatic waters, it must remain cognizant of the nuanced dynamics at play. 

SOUTHCOM’s use of imagery, such as the American flag, to symbolize its allies, even if  intended to foster a sense of unity, inadvertently stirs a contentious historical context. Latin America and the Caribbean have a complex history with US intervention, where the ideals of democracy and sovereignty have often clashed. Likewise, the narrative of “Team Democracy,” though possibly well-intentioned, risks being perceived as a veiled attempt at American hegemony, overshadowing any genuine efforts at collaboration. It simplifies the intricate political landscape into a binary of allies versus adversaries, neglecting the diverse perspectives and unique challenges of each nation.

SOUTHCOM’s future engagements should reflect a blend of diplomatic finesse, cultural understanding, and strategic patience, ensuring that its role as a partner is both effective and sustainable. In doing so, it can continue to build upon its successes while avoiding the pitfalls that could diminish its influence and the broader objectives of US foreign policy in the region. It should strive to create a narrative that respects the sovereignty and distinct political trajectories of these nations, fostering a partnership based on mutual respect and understanding. This nuanced approach is essential in ensuring that the promotion of democratic values does not become counterproductive. Instead, it strengthens the collaborative ties in a region that values its independence and agency.

Adam Ratzlaff, Emma Woods, Jeffery A. Tobin

Adam Ratzlaff is a specialist and consultant in Inter-American affairs as well as a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at Florida International University. He has previously worked with the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and Global Americans, among other groups. Emma Woods is the Chair of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Latin America discussion group. She holds a B.A. from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Global Studies. Jeffery A. Tobin is a Political Science Doctoral Candidate in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He was a journalist for more than 20 years.

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